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Can a New Hybrid Model of ‘Nature As Infrastructure’ Protect Cities From Climate Change?


American landscape architect Kate Orff presents a revolutionary approach to her discipline — a model of “stewarded nature” that strategically weaves living systems into the physical infrastructure of cities to reduce climate-induced risks.

By Souvik Chowdhury

2 April 2024

Kate Orff presents a hybrid model of “stewarded nature” to reduce climate-induced risks faced by cities | Image Courtesy of SCAPE

“We humans are profoundly impacting the planet. There is no pure nature that’s outside of us,” said Kate Orff in an interview late last year, only a few months after she was included on Time magazine’s annual list of the 100 most influential people in the world, making the American the first landscape architect ever to receive the recognition. “We’ve made the world what it is already, so now we need to take a very, very strong hand in the remaking. It is a matter of design.”

And it is Orff’s approach to this very “remaking,” at a time when climate change is increasing the frequency and intensity of extreme weather events across the globe, putting human lives and businesses at unprecedented risk, that sets her apart from her contemporaries — while also reimagining the scope and impact of her chosen discipline. “Restoring nature is trying to bring back nature for nature’s sake,” she says. “We need to think radically differently about what infrastructure means. We need to…see that living landscapes are a form of infrastructure in the sense that forests, for example, clean our water and our air, oyster reefs clean the water and buffer the shore, and mangrove forests help keep our coastal shorelines intact.”

Living Breakwaters consists of eight 700-meter-long, partially submerged breakwaters in Staten Island, New York | Image Courtesy of SCAPE

This hybrid model of “stewarded nature” takes centrestage at the Living Breakwaters initiative off the coast of Staten Island, New York, easily Orff’s most popular and ambitious project. Developed by a large, multi-disciplinary team led by her New-York based, 80-people strong firm SCAPE as part of a winning proposal for a design competition launched by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) in the aftermath of Superstorm Sandy, the project takes the ancient idea of breakwaters, structures traditionally made out of stone or concrete and erected in coastal regions to protect harbors and beaches from the force of waves, and interprets it in a “living” avatar. 

Built of stone and ecologically-enhanced concrete units, the breakwaters will break waves and reduce erosion of the beach | Image Courtesy of SCAPE

The $107 million project consists of eight 700-meter-long, partially submerged breakwaters near the shoreline of Staten Island. Built of stone and ecologically-enhanced concrete units, they will, one, break waves and reduce erosion of the beach, but two and more interestingly, provide a range of habitat spaces for oysters, fin fish and other marine species, building reefs that can grow denser over time and offer more protection.

Another important pillar of the project is a programme of community-focused initiatives that Orff and her team have led for over ten years with the aim to educate residents about the shoreline and the ecosystems it fosters — with a view to inspire local environmental stewardship. The efforts have culminated in the Living Breakwaters Curriculum, an open-access, online learning programme developed by SCAPE in collaboration with the New York City-based non-profit Billion Oysters Project.

The ‘living’ breakwaters will provide a range of habitat spaces for marine species, building reefs that can grow denser over time and offer more protection | Image Courtesy of SCAPE

This revolutionary approach, of combining engineered infrastructure with natural systems to mitigate storm risks and revitalize coastal ecosystems while engaging local communities, exemplifies Orff’s practice and won her and SCAPE the 2023 OBEL AWARD, one of the biggest prizes in architecture with a purse of €100,000. “This relatively low-cost, low-tech response provides a seminal example of how to design not against but with nature in adapting to the changes that lie ahead,” said the jury panel in their citation. “This is a visionary project…which has the capacity…to positively impact vulnerable shorelines worldwide.”

And that is exactly what Orff and her team at SCAPE have been working on through a slew of large-scale resilience and adaptation planning projects across the United States. In Louisiana, where about 2,000 square miles of land has been lost to factors like sea level rise, the practice has worked with the state’s Coastal Protection and Restoration Authority (CPRA) on a living master plan document that will guide investments in risk reduction and restoration projects. Through a suite of 77 projects, the plan proposes structural interventions such as levees and floodgates as well as marshland creation, wetland restoration and sediment diversion initiatives with a view to prevent land loss and reduce annual damage from storm surge-based flooding.